Energising transformation

“Sometimes it’s really heart-breaking for them that they can’t do more for some of the families that they visit,” confesses Mieke Maerten of De Energiecentrale in Ghent’s Environment and Climate Department, “but we try to pick these people up later on.”

The city’s climate coaches have seen it all, from newlyweds’ brand-new homes to old art nouveau apartments, from breezy windows to mouldy walls. But all of their clients have one thing in common: the desire to uncouple the twin stars of home heat and high bills.

A few years ago, the city made a worrying discovery: only two in ten households have proper roof insulation, glazing and heating. That meant eight in ten homes were still spending money and wasting energy to belch out heat through the roof and windows – a bad deal for them, and for the environment.

The mystery

Why would people, even quite poor people, waste their money like that, and how could they be helped? By finding an answer to those questions, the city has managed to save locals €1,220,000 on energy bills and the equivalent of 5,800 tonnes of CO2 emissions every single year.

The solution comes in the form of Ghent’s De Energiecentrale (The Energyhub) a one-stop shop for advice and guidance on energy efficiency. This organisation sends out coaches to help people understand their options and grab opportunities to save energy in their homes. “People are really surprised about the impact that the renovations have,” says Maerten. Many people don’t realise just how much money they can save; but that’s far from being the only obstacle.

People are really surprised
— Mieke Maerten
Advertising for Ghent's De Energiecentral
Not sure about your energy renovation? We’ve got the answers. The Energiecentrale. For better living in Ghent.

Hurdles on the track

People are also unaware of the large grants that are available that can cut the initial costs of their energy renovations. If they are aware of them, many succumb to the force of inertia because they don’t feel up to tackling the paperwork. Even after the paperwork, they’ll have to find an honest and available contractor who can do the work for them to a good standard within the forecast budget.

And there’s another caveat: even though the grants will pay much of their investment back, many simply can’t find the money to deal with the upfront costs before the grant gives them their money back.

Ghent’s De Energiecentrale is a sweeping initiative that mows down all of these hurdles one by one. Its incredible achievements in this area led to Ghent becoming a finalist in last year’s Eurocities Awards. First, Maerten says, the climate coach calls out for a free visit to your home:

“We don’t give generic advice, we give renovation advice for your specific home and your specific budgets. Every house here in Ghent is different, we have a lot of different styles and ages and we have to have a new plan for it. The fact that we help them and that we have a list of trustworthy contractors is a big plus. And then we help them with the paperwork, not only preparing the tenders but also afterwards for all the grants and all the stuff that they need to do.”

A coach gives advice to a man renovating his home in Ghent
A climate coach explains the options

Finding the cash

Every house here in Ghent is different
— Mieke Maerten

The city even helps them get special parking permission contractors, or a permit to have scaffolding on the street – whatever they need to get the job done. And of course, there’s the not so little issue of coming up with the money before the grant kicks in. “We introduce this energy loan which pre-finances the work,” says Maerten with a smile.

“And then the grant is immediately subtracted from your loan.” The loan payments don’t begin until three month’s after the work is complete – enough time in Belgium for the lower rate achieved by energy savings to kick in.

The city makes this loan available to anyone, even those who typically cannot get a loan from a bank, and the money comes from a ‘revolving climate fund’ – a system that uses all repayments to reinvest in further loans. For those belonging to vulnerable target groups, the interest rate goes down to 0%. Another financing option is €30,000 starting capital, which has to be refunded upon change of ownership, from the Urban Innovative Actions project ICCARUS. These loans not only solve the pre-financing problem but also make it possible to carry out more significant renovations, making the decrease in energy bills immediately even vaster.

Hanging on by a thread

A central aim of the programme is to reduce energy poverty, and an important target group are renters and homeowners who are forced to spend so much of their income on mortgage payments or rent that they cannot afford much else.

“Of course, some of them are lucky enough to have a home,” Maerten confesses, “but we have a lot of situations where there’s mould on the walls and people haven’t got the budget to do something about it so that’s why we try to reach that audience as well.” Frequently these people have gone through divorce, bereavement or job loss and found themselves hanging on by a thread.

We have a lot of situations where there's mould on the walls and people haven't got the budget to do something about it
— Mieke Maerten

To promote and support collective renovations, De Energiecentrale also supports groups of locals who wish to take on renovation initiatives in their street or neighbourhood. The city helps them help them set up group purchases and guide them in convincing their neighbours to join. And the interventions don’t stop at insulation. The renovation coaches also encourage homeowners to take the next step: introducing renewable energy, such as solar panels and solar boilers, for the remaining energy demand.

Besides energy issues, the renovation coaches can help out with rainwater collection, green roofs and facades, cooling infrastructure and even noise pollution, especially when replacing windows or installing outside units for heath pumps.

Connecting with grassroots

To get the best results, the city doesn’t try to be an expert in everything – it works with lots of NGOs and citizen groups to harness bottom-up energy. De Energiecentrale is a partnership between the Environmental and Climate Service of the city of Ghent and REGent vzw, an NGO assuming the role of Flemish Energy Counter for Ghent residents. The renovation coaches are a mix of city staff and experts brought in by local Climate and Housing NGOs MAW, Domus Mundi and Energent.

People standing by an electric cargo bike in Ghent
A great service relies on a great team

The work that the programme does to combat energy poverty is co-created with partners like the Public Social Welfare Centre, social housing and poverty organisations and Fluvius, the Flemish regulator for electricity and gas. For solar panels, the city works with Gent Zonnestad, a local NGO promoting solar energy and Buurzame Stroom an experimental project on affordable collective solar power.

Learning and growing

We gave generic advice, because that was what we what we were able to do
— Mieke Maerten

Just as Ghent’s De Energiecentrale encourages its clients to learn new things and adapt, so too the organisation keeps abreast of the latest in behavioural science, constantly evaluates feedback and reassess its approach. The practice of making home visits grew out of this. “Before, people came to our offices with photographs, ‘this is what my house looks like’,” Maerten recalls, “we gave generic advice because that was what we were able to do. Coming to the people’s houses was a lot more work, of course, but it made a big difference.”

A freezing family home juxtaposed to a warm one in Ghent
Communication is key – don’t get left out in the cold

And there are many more changes in store for the future. The city will be putting more emphasis on improving basic housing quality, addressing issues like structural dampness and sanitary issues; paying more attention to working with residents’ associations in apartment buildings; encouraging non-gas heating in new builds and deep renovations; increasing the financial supports available with more loan structures; and undertake broader communication campaigns to make more people aware of and enthusiastic about the programme.

People are very grateful
— Mieke Maerten

Enthusiasm is never lacking in people once they have received assistance. “People are very grateful for this service,” Maerten says, “It’s very fulfilling for the coaches when people tell them afterwards, ‘I couldn’t have done it without you,’ which happens a lot.” With 400 renovation consultations and an average of €6 million annual energy-saving investments per year, which have led to 660 new jobs in the construction sector, there’s certainly a lot of gratitude to go around.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer